Possession

Frazer MacDonald reviews a tense and slightly unhinged cult horror set in Cold War Berlin…

Andrej Zulawski’s Possession was made eight years before the Wall came down. Although at the time it was a commercial and critical flop, it has since gained a cult status as a film that explores that particular era of Berlin’s history.

The film tells the story of a West Berlin spy who comes back from a job to discover his home life has been turned upside down. The city is changing; his wife is seeing someone else, and he doesn’t know what to do about it. For the viewer, it’s not hard to understand why his wife wants to leave: Mark himself, played by a terrifying Sam Neill, is abusive, and always seems to be on the verge of a violent outburst (early on in the film, he has to be taken from a café by force after smashing up the place).

Still from 1981 cult horror film, “Possession”, which is set in Cold War Berlin

Presumably to add a juicy layer of confusion, their son’s school teacher looks like a clone of his wife, but with deep green contact lenses and without the subdued, functional clothing of Communist East Germany that Anna wears; rather, the schoolteacher doppelgänger (who goes unnamed) dresses in more modern attire, always looking as if she’s just stepped off a fashion runway.

Possession is a film of intense claustrophobia: most of its runtime features small, cramped flats (with the exception of one scene in a meeting room towards the beginning and a couple of outdoor scenes), and the camera is constantly zoomed into the actor’s faces, giving the entire production a woozy, fever-dream type effect. It also feels constantly on the precipice of violence; you never quite know what’s going to happen, or when, but there’s a distinct sense that at some point the action will come to blows.

Given that, Possession is a horror film in the purest sense: it wants to make the audience think, but it wants to make them squirm too, and at no point does it let them off the hook. Intellectually, the film’s paranoid atmosphere is reminiscent of the Cold War era, one in which nobody could fully trust each other, and there was a growing rift between people who believed in the economic systems of each side.

The Berlin Wall is a constant throughout, like a monolithic but sentient presence constantly watching over the action—in fact, there’s a good view of it from Mark and Anna’s apartment. It could even be said that the Wall is one of Possession’s most essential characters, since the film is oddly prescient of the immense social change that would come eight years after its release.

Many of Possession’s filming locations are still there, and look remarkably similar today as they do in the film. Anna and Mark’s apartment was on Bernauer Straße, one of the most storied stretches of the former Wall and in fact the site of the official Berlin Wall Museum and Memorial. The aforementioned cafe scene, in which Anna and Mark argue, was filmed in Cafe Einstein on Kurfürstenstraße, where other famous films like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds have been filmed thanks to its layered history and atmospheric interior.

Cafe Einstein Stammhaus in Schöneberg, one of several identifiable Berlin locations in the movie. Photo courtesy of venue.

The film’s most iconic scenes – the U-Bahn ‘freakout’ scene, and the famous one in the apartment that features the film’s famous ‘creature’, were filmed in the Platz der Luftbrücke U-Bahn station and at Sebastianstraße 87 respectively. Most of these locations, and a couple of others such as Restaurant Stiege on Oranienstraße, are also still around.

But back to The Creature, as it’s referred to in the opening credits. What exactly it’s supposed to be is one of the movie’s most enduring mysteries. It sort of looks like an alien and also like an unearthed sea creature; think the Lament configuration from Hellraiser, only more disgusting to look at. There’s no explanation of where it came from or how it got where it is, making Possession a puzzle-box of a film even in its more conventional scenes.

U-Bahn Platz der Luftbrücke by Jcornelius, Via Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

Clearly it’s a metaphor—but for what? Some say it represents the societal change in Germany, a bridge between the divided East and West and its capitalist future; others take a similar view that for Anna, it represents a desire be a part of what would eventually become modern Germany; others still believe the entire film is a metaphor for Zulawski’s divorce, which was ongoing during Possession’s production.

Possession’s ending is also very telling, in which Mark and Anna ‘die,’ but are transformed into doppelgänger versions of themselves who look cleaner, happier, and more put together. But it’s clear that Zulawski has reservations about Germany’s future: at the film’s climax, a long take of the ‘new’ Mark and Anna is paired with distressing air raid sirens, which tells us what he thinks about to which Germany is headed—one fraught with inequality and even more political tensions.

It seems that, although Zulawski had reservations about the communists in his home country, he knew that Germany becoming a capitalist nation would result in similar problems for its citizens, with them being forced into submission by a state who regarded ideology over their lives. Above all, Possession’s narrative seems at least partly a way to express those reservations.

It’s fairly likely that The Creature (and many of Possession’s other scenes) is at the very least a middle finger to the censors who frequently edited Zulawski’s work for cinematic release in his home country, Poland. In a way, if it wasn’t for the censors, Possession probably never would have been set in Berlin at all. But unfortunately, upping sticks and moving didn’t give him much luck; the film was still heavily censored in many territories, including in the UK, where it was banned as part of the ‘Video Nasties Act,’ leading to the film being eviscerated by the critics.

Only later, when it finally became available in its uncut form, has Possession been able to enjoy a cultural reappraisal. It’s well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.

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